SEOUL — North Korea’s recent firing of a new type of short-range missile is raising questions about the feasibility of South Korea’s missile defense capability.
On May 4, North Korea fired a salvo of rockets and tactical guided weapons near the east coast city of Wonsan, marking the first military provocation in 17 months, during a live-fire drill reportedly attended by its leader Kim Jong Un. The projectiles flew 70-240 kilometers before crashing into the eastern waters off the Korean Peninsula, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Defense and Security Forum, analyzed photos of the weapons systems released by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency a day after the test launch.
“The newly tested weapon, which had been made public during a military parade last year, appears to the Russian Iskander look-alike,” he said. “The design of wings and warhead shown in the photos resembles that of Iskander, and the North Korean missile seems to copy the solid-propellant, single-stage guided missile of the Russian precision ballistic missile complex.
“The number of wheels for the transporter-erector-launcher is also [the] same.”
Shin Won-shik, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new ballistic missile type might be able to penetrate South Korea’s missile defense systems.
“The Iskander missile is known to be capable of maneuvering at different altitudes and trajectories during flight so as to evade anti-ballistic missiles,” the retired three-star general said. “The South Korean missile shield has been developed with a focus on coping with existing ballistic missiles, such as Scud and No Dong missiles, so there are questions if the current missile defense plans are fitted for thwarting the newer missile threat.”
South Korea is on track to build its own low-tier missile shield dubbed the Korea Air and Missile Defense system or KAMD — a network that includes Patriot Advanced Capability-2 and -3 interceptors, ship-based SM-2 missiles, and locally developed medium-range surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system was deployed in the southern part of South Korea in 2007 to augment the low-tier, terminal-phase KAMD.
South Korea also has an operational plan to preemptively destroy key North Korean military targets should the North show signs of a missile launch or cross-border attack. The plan is part of the so-called Kill Chain program involving airborne early warning and surveillance assets, precision-guided missiles from fighter jets and ground-based systems.
“The Kill Chain is based on the premise that our military can detect, track and strike targets prior to [an] enemy’s real attacks,” Shin said. “Compared to liquid-fuel missiles, solid-fuel missiles could be fired faster and have greater mobility. In the worst-case scenario, the KAMD and Kill Chain systems may need to be redesigned to thwart the newer threats.”
North Korea’s new missile was likely upgraded from the North’s KN-02 Toksa missile, also modified from the Russian OTR-21 Tochka short-range ballistic missile, according to Shin Jong-woo.
“North Korea has long been developing Russian-origin missile technologies, [though] it’s unclear if the communist regime would have taken those technologies from a third country operating Iskander systems, such as Syria and Algeria,” he added.
Developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the Scud short-range ballistic missile, the Iskander is a road-based mobile launch system that can fire several models of ballistic and cruise missiles. It is said to have at least seven types of missiles with different conventional warheads, including a high-explosive fragmentation warhead and nuclear warheads.
The missile is known to have a range of up to 500 kilometers and controlled with gas-dynamic and aerodynamic control surfaces. It uses small fins to reduce its radar signature.
“The missile is potentially capable of conducting strikes on all areas of South Korea, including key American military installations,” according to Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies. “What worries most is the missile could carry a nuclear warhead with up to 500 kilograms.”
About 28,500 American forces are stationed in South Korea. The U.S. military’s main headquarters is based in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of the capital Seoul.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down the North Korean missile threat in an interview with ABC News on Sunday, noting the missiles are “relatively short range” and “landed in the water east of North Korea and didn’t present a threat to the United States or to South Korea or Japan.”
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.